By Jason McKeown
When referee Kevin Johnson blew the final whistle that confirmed Bradford City had beaten Shrewsbury Town, a huddle of celebration was formed inside the Bantams dugout, headed up by Michael Collins, Greg Abbott and Martin Drury. Glee, relief, elation – it was an outpouring of emotion, to commemorate a milestone moment.
The June unveiling of Collins, Abbott and Drury as City’s new coaching team arguably ranks as the most underwhelming managerial appointment in the club’s history. Shock was quickly followed by despair. Questions, doubts and conspiracy theories have been given oxygen to thrive.
Typically, a new manager or head coach begins life in the dugout aided by a wave of public goodwill. But in contrast, it’s been a rough ride for Collins, the rookie head coach. He had – and still has – a lot to prove. This was a big, big moment. You could feel it in his release of joy at the end. And you’d need a heart of stone not to have enjoyed the look of pure delight from starting off in the best possible way.
Huddles were the theme of the day. Almost exactly two hours earlier, Collins’ new charges finished off the pre-match warm up in an eye-catching manner. Each and every member of the squad joined the coaching team in a huddle right in front of the away end, before turning to the fans to show their appreciation. They were greeted by a huge roar of approval from supporters. This was Collins’ and the players proactive attempt to begin healing the fractured atmosphere around the club that, over the first half of 2018, saw relations between player and supporter badly damaged. It was about bringing the club together again.
And it set the tone for an afternoon of change and intrigue. The communal pre-match huddle was a precursor of the new-look Bradford City displaying highly impressive levels of commitment to the cause. Collins spoke post-match of building a team that mirrors the city of Bradford’s values of working hard, and emphasised the high priority he gives over having the right characters in the team. It was as though Phil Parkinson was back in the building. It would certainly appear that Collins, who is an avid student of the game, has looked into the recent history of what made Bradford City successful.
Not that the style of play is from any Parkinson handbook. Collins’ philosophy can be summed up in three simple words – attack, attack, attack. He may only favour playing one up front, but the 3-4-2-1 formation employed is full of positive intent. The sight of Shrewsbury right back James Bolton struggling to bring the ball out when level with his own penalty area, because Adam Chicksen was closing him down, was striking. Especially given it came in only the second minute of the game.
The pressing, high-line approach from City forced Shrewsbury onto the back foot for the first half hour, with the Bantams profiting when George Miller produced some great work hustling Bolton and running along the byline, before pulling the ball back for Jack Payne to calmly steer into the bottom corner. A goal that was the result of skill and persistence. It summed up the team.
City have clearly done well to secure the services of Payne for a season. He is so skilful on the ball, likes to take risks to create openings, and has a deft vision of passing that occasionally his own team mates struggled to keep up with. He should really be playing at a higher level. Payne thrived in a free role behind Miller, who himself proved the perfect foil by tirelessly working the channels and making space.
It was mightily encouraging from City. Behind Miller and Payne, Sean Scannell showed flashes of flair that kept Shrewsbury hemmed back, whilst wing backs Chicksen and Joe Riley charged up and down the pitch with impressive stamina. The width they provided helped City to overload the Shrewsbury full backs. With all but the three centre halves camped inside the Town half when the Bantams had possession, there was always a spare man popping up in space for a pass. Josh Wright and, to a lesser extent, Hope Akpan, dictated the tempo.
Despite their own summer of turmoil, Shrewsbury remain a decent side and came back into it before half time. They’re on the cusp of losing six of their play off final starting XI, but their retention of Shaun Whalley leaves them with one of the best wingers in League One, and he caused City problems. That continued into the second half, where the downsides of City’s formation – the gaps left between centre backs and wing backs – provided Shrewsbury with large pockets of space.
Yet City defended well, lead by the outstanding Anthony O’Connor, who barely put a foot wrong all afternoon. In a game of 11 promising Bantams debuts, the Irishman was the standout performer. Tough in the tackle, an excellent reader of the game and comfortable on the ball, he already looks like some signing. Alongside him, Nat Knight-Percival and Kelvin Mellor were generally solid too. Matt Kligallon’s omission from the matchday squad is curious and could lead to an interesting few days, ahead of the closing of the transfer window.
What helped City was Collins’ decision to change the formation around, and go for a conventional 4-4-2 formation, with Chicksen and Mellor as full backs. That led to Eion Doyle being brought on for his debut – the midweek signing from Preston should have scored two goals, but otherwise made a positive impact – and City regained control of the game. Scannell burst back into life on the right hand side, providing the strongest indications yet he can become the successor to Mark Marshall that was badly missed last season. Collins deserves credit for the effectiveness of his tactical tweaks.
It became end to end, with Shrewsbury’s own substitute – a certain Alex Gilliead – also causing problems. Both sides hit the woodwork a couple of times. That desire to attack meant Collins resisted the natural urge to close up shop and see out the game. By the end, he had brought on Tyrell Robinson and Sherwin Seedorf – leaving Shrewsbury’s attempts to throw everyone forward, in search for an equaliser, compromised by the very real threat of the City counter attack.
To be so gung ho in the closing stages of a game you’re winning, away from home, was risky – very risky. Had Shrewsbury snatched an equaliser at the death, the post-match criticisms of Collins’ tactics would have followed a predictable path. But ultimately, the 32-year-old was rewarded for his bold approach. City merited the three points. And it sets them up nicely for next week’s Yorkshire derby with Barnsley.
It is only a start. There’s a long, long way to go, and far bigger tests await Collins. But equally, more than 1,500 City fans turned up at Shrewsbury unsure exactly what to expect, with a heavy defeat feeling plausible. Working for the Pulse today, we spoke to the coaching staff and even Edin Rahic before kick off, and their abundant excitement could not disguise their understandable nerves. This was a step into the unknown for everyone. And it might have been a rocky start. That it went much better than worst fears is a major positive.
From the pre-match huddle to the victorious celebrations at full time, this felt like an afternoon where Bradford City started to feel united again. That the scars of the past can be healed. And that the uncertainty of this season need not be a bad thing. The style of football, and the engagement levels of the players – this felt a world away from the nightmare end to last season.
It’s not time to get carried away. It could all yet go terribly, terribly wrong. But this victory is something to build on. An afternoon where Bradford City demonstrated their potential, and where Collins showcased his aptitude to do the job. He’s offering up something very different in the style of football, but aligning it to old fashioned values that were the bedrock of recent achievements.
The months ahead should prove anything but dull.
Categories: Match Reviews